By Jayatri Das
Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jayatri Das is chief bioscientist and lead developer of “Your Brain,” the nation’s largest permanent museum exhibit dedicated to the brain, which opened at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia this month.
(CNN) — From the outside, the human brain might not be much to look at. What makes it fascinating is hidden within, in the complicated circuitry of neurons that makes you who you are.
Scientists are trying to understand this complex network and find the key to staying sharp as we age. In the meantime, use what they do know: that exercising these neurons can improve your memory and possibly stave off dementia.
In honor of Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, spend some time getting to know your brain a little better.
The basic building blocks
Neurons, the functional building blocks of your brain, communicate using a combination of electrical and chemical signals. How and when do they fire? How are they wired together? How does that wiring change?
Understanding these fundamental mechanisms isn’t just a trip back to biology class. This knowledge is essential to understanding how you can keep your brain healthy, and why these different strategies work.
The 86 billion neurons in your head are constantly active. Even though the brain doesn’t account for much of your body weight, it uses 20% of your body’s energy to function. It’s a matter of gray and white.
Gray matter, which contains the parts of neurons that carry out thought processing, uses most of this energy. White matter is more efficient. It contains the long axons of neurons that relay signals and coordinate different areas of the brain.
However, it’s not enough for your brain cells simply to fire in the same patterns over and over. From moment to moment, throughout your life, your neurons need to rewire themselves based on your genes and experiences.
The differences in the connections between neurons are what make each of our brains unique, but characterizing those differences is among the biggest challenges facing scientists today. Even if scientists could record the network of a whole brain in an instant, it would only capture a single frame of a lifelong movie.
Keep your brain strong
There are things you can do on a daily basis to help your brain stay sharp.
Most importantly, stay in good physical health. Exercising and eating a healthy diet may sound as trite as “an apple a day,” but repeated studies have shown how these practices help the brain at a cellular level.
Exercise improves cognitive functions ranging from math to memory across the lifespan, and it can even benefit brain function during the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise enhances the growth and survival of new neurons in the hippocampus — a region of the brain essential for long-term memory — which may be able to replace others that degenerate as a result of the disease.
Blueberries, kale, coffee and nuts often get a lot of attention as good “brain foods” because of their high levels of antioxidants. Why?
Negatively charged oxygen compounds are produced as a byproduct of your body’s normal metabolism. They can set off chemical chain reactions that eventually damage or kill cells. Because your neurons are so active, your brain is particularly susceptible, and antioxidants can prevent those chain reactions from occurring.
Give your brain an active lifestyle
You know you need to workout to keep your body in shape. Your mind is no different. Learning and practicing any challenging skill — for example, a second language, reading, or even juggling — can change the structure of your brain for the better.
This type of mental stimulation can delay cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease, although there’s evidence that once the symptoms of dementia begin, they progress faster.
Also, stay connected with friends and family — as long as it doesn’t create more stress! Several studies have shown that being part of a larger social network can reduce the cognitive effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
Accept the things you cannot change
The fact that the brain is always changing gives us the opportunity to shape those neural connections through our behavior and environment. But beneath all of those factors lies the unchangeable role of genetics.
How do genes and your environment interact in normal aging, let alone result in diseases such as Alzheimer’s? Neuroscientists are still looking at the effects of lifestyle choices, finding genes associated with elevated risk of disease, and studying the molecular mechanisms through which plaques and tangles of proteins damage neurons.
So far, however, the advances we are making are merely laying the groundwork for a future set of questions. We can only hope that someday, in a future June, we’ll be celebrating a cure for Alzheimer’s instead.
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